Happiness, Loss, and Meaning

The happiest person I know is also the person I know who has had the most loss.  My godmother’s mother died after a long illness when my godmother was in her teens, and her father died when she was giving birth to her first child.  She had two children with her first husband, who struggled with alcoholism and whom she eventually divorced.  Her daughter was born with cystic fibrosis and died in childhood after a short lifetime of medication, painful daily chest therapy, and many hospitalizations.  The last decade of my godmother’s second marriage was extraordinarily difficult because her husband’s strokes robbed him of the ability to empathize – he was completely different from the compassionate, loving minister she had married.  She has just moved to a small town in the north where she knows no one.

My godmother doesn’t see herself as a victim at all; rather, she views each life experience as a gift and a learning experience, and uses it to add to her life and to the lives of others. She doesn’t focus on her daughter’s struggle with cystic fibrosis but rather on her daughter’s strength and feisty spirit, how well loved she was by everyone who knew her, and how blessed the family was to receive such incredible support.  Instead of focusing on the deterioration of her first marriage due to her husband’s alcoholism, she compassionately talks about the guilt he felt about their daughter’s genetic terminal illness and acknowledges the struggle they had in supporting one another.  She doesn’t focus on the last decade of her husband’s life and how different he was from the loving, gentle, clever man he had always been.  In the aftermath of his death she considers the passing of time a gift that allows her to reconnect with the man she married.  In her new town she is enthusiastically finding opportunities to continue the work she’s done for so many years – volunteering as a bereavement specialist in hospice and the school system.

There are so many lessons to learn here about happiness (what we choose to focus on, gratitude, compassion), and the one that stands out most to me is the connection between happiness and meaning.  Which turns up just as many questions as it does answers… stay tuned for next week’s post!